What is emotional abuse and what can I do about it?

Emotional health is closely related to physical health. Check out the self-treatment index for stress-reduction suggestions.

Image of someone shaming someone else, drawings of silhouettes with words of shame and despair

Our emotions, or how we choose to react to events in our lives, can trigger almost any kind of physical ailment if we let our stress continue long enough. We react to ill treatment, financial setbacks, loss of loved ones, distress over world affairs, frustrations of daily living—you name it, we can feel stress about it. Sometimes, it seems that the stress comes from the outside and that we have no control over it, but we always have control over how we deal with outside stressors. It’s easy to observe that two people can have the same experience and react in opposite ways.

Sometimes, the outside stressors are subtle and it takes us a long time to recognize them; it isn’t always a big catastrophe that triggers our despair. Let’s talk about emotional abuse. It often starts out small, hidden by sarcastic humor, or idle comments about our worth. It’s often so subtle that if you call the abuser on it, he/she will accuse you of being paranoid. They were just kidding. They didn’t mean anything by it.

There’s a long list of behaviors used by emotional abusers. Let’s examine some of them.

  • Humiliation, put-downs, teasing about your habits in front of others. Remember, this might be very subtle, in the guise of humor.
  • They demean or disregard your opinions and ideas. This might appear as innocently as frequent corrections, ie.: Let me show you how to do that properly.
  • They tell you that you are over-sensitive or paranoid when their remarks hurt your feelings or you don’t laugh at their sarcasm. “What’s the matter? Don’t you have a sense of humor?”
  • They won’t tolerate the same kind of treatment aimed at them.
  • They treat you like a child. They direct and scold you. They might tell you how to dress, how to wear your hair. They let you know that they won’t find you attractive if you don’t follow their advice.
  • They don’t want you to go anywhere without them. They discourage or even forbid you to have close connections with others. Maybe they just pout or give you the silent treatment when you try to go somewhere with others, but the message is always clear if you are looking for it.
  • They control the finances and how you spend. They refer to marital assets as “My money.” Or “I cannot afford that.” Never “WE.”
  • If he or she has more education, they might belittle you for being less educated, with the subtle suggestion that they are bound to know everything while you know nothing.
  • They say things that aren’t true. Especially when angry, he might say, “You are the most selfish person in the world.” You know that isn’t true and that you are in fact, not very selfish at all, but it hurts and you wonder if you are a terrible person.
  • They don’t like to be laughed at. Woe to the person who makes a joke about them or who finds humor in something that they do.
  • They insist on respect but have very little for others.
  • They might make you wait every time you have an agreement to meet or to leave for an engagement at a certain time. But don’t dare make them wait. It’s all about control.
  • They rarely apologize.
  • They withdraw their affection when you cross them or choose to do as you please.
  • Everything you do is viewed as a reflection on them. If they don’t behave in a certain way, they don’t want you to behave that way. They expect you to mold your behavior to suit their sense of propriety.
  • If you are happy or excited about something that doesn’t involve them, they will try to spoil it for you.
  • In the worst cases, they make threats in order to control your behavior.
  • They will subject you to the silent treatment until you come around to their way of thinking.
  • Even when it’s just the two of you, they mutter cutting remarks that you can barely hear.
  • They are emotionally distant much of the time. You are never sure what they are thinking or feeling.
  • They often will be cold and distant but not tell you why. You know you did something to displease them, but you never know what it was.
  • They will ask you if you want the red one or the blue one. If you choose the blue, they will tell you why the red one is better.
  • They might give you a choice of Restaurant A or Restaurant B. If you dare to suggest Restaurant C, they will complain that you don’t appreciate their generosity.
  • He wants you to admire him and look up to him and no others.
  • She wants you to buy her presents all the time.
  • They will forget your birthday, but you mustn’t forget theirs.
  • He might take away all your pleasures by suggesting that you aren’t capable and that he can do it better for you. Hence, you stay helpless and feeling incompetent, and he gets to be the hero. It’s all about the way he feels about himself and imagines that others feel about him. If you resist, he pouts and calls you ungrateful.
  • If you are driving in the car and make comments about the countryside, he may be silent, ignoring you completely. However, if he makes a comment and you do not engage, he is insulted and angry. You spend a lot of time trying to find subjects of interest to him, while abandoning your own.

If even half of these behaviors aren’t enough to send you running in the opposite direction, at least run to the nearest couples counselor. Or, for yourself, find a good personal counselor who can help you rebuild your self-esteem and either resist the abuser’s efforts to hold you down, or leave the relationship. Your emotional, mental and physical health depends on it.

Sometimes, you can get help from alternative therapies rather than talk therapy, so if you are inclined, here are some suggestions